Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Ideas for ending Pathfinder's progression at 10th level

OK, after a satisfying Swords & Wizardry interlude, let’s get back to our schedule.

At my last post I (sort of) concluded that the various d20 games are entertaining (for me) approximately until the 10th level. Now it’s time to come up with some suggestions about how to deal with that.

It’s a paradox: I want my games to “end” at levels 10-12, but I don’t want character advancement to stop. My problem may reside with the nature of the character progression and how the game sets certain challenges to levels.

Oh, and just a small conceptual clarification: when I say “d20 games” I mean D&D 3rd and its offspring (AD&D 2nd and everything before, including 99% of most retroclones, are off). Also: new rules at this post are geared toward Pathfinder.

As I said, I’m not interested in running games – mechanically speaking – beyond the 10-15th levels. In fact, at my table the adventures become considerably over the top already by 10th level. You can’t go much further without changing the nature of the game itself (or “Dragonballing it” as I like to call it).

If I introduced epic elements (20th+) after the 10th level – thematically speaking – my players would quickly accept them. My last session of Curse of the Crimson Throne, in which I set the player characters against a stone giant army, showed exactly that. It also confirmed that – in my groups’ mindset – “epic” challenges should be stuff around 15th level at most. I firmly believe that you could place demon lords, archdevils, demigods and other “epic” threats as 15-20 CR creatures without any problem (that is one of the reasons why I love the D&D 3.5 Fiendish Codex series). Deities and things of that scale – if I stated any of them – would probably be at most at CR 30. Given the power boost of 3rd/Pathfinder it also makes sense for me to place the most powerful NPCs of most settings around 9-12th level. It works, it’s not mechanically cumbersome (for me at least, after all, YMMV) and it fits with how my table “sees” the various campaigns settings.

Finally, I feel that the d20 system would work better if most base bonus stopped around +10. I remember reading somewhere that Gygax and Anderson planned the original game around such level cap (however, one can also argue that high-level is VERY differently in the first editions).

There is a point where most bonus progressions become just “big numbers” without any impact at the table. Sure, you can increase the monster’s and threat’s numbers (hello, D&D 4E), but the end result is the same: “bigger numbers”, without any (dramatic or dynamic) impact at how the table group feels the game experience.

The first inspiration for “interrupting” the game’s progression, already mentioned a lot in this blog, is the awesome E6 mini game, which I used to make my E12 game. Another major inspiration was the original “epic system” for D&D 3rd, designed by the luminary Jonathan Tweet, which I still believe to be the best (but not only) option for d20.

I want to try something different here.

I’m not supplying a new subsystem, just loose ideas. My goal is to offer alternative mechanics in order to replace simple arithmetical progression of BAB, Hit Points, Skill Ranks and Saves. I suggest using these alternatives after 10th level, but maybe they could be applied at other points (like 6th, 8th, 15th or even 20th level).

After reaching 10th level, the BAB, HPs, save and skill rank progressions would stop (class feature would go on). Instead of them, you would have the following options. Please, note that I don’t take in account multiclass rules. I’m not sure how they would work with the ideas bellows. For now, consider that acquiring a new class is forbidden after 10th level.

Base Attack Bonus
If your new level would grant a +1 to your BAB, choose instead one of the benefits described below.
  • Attack Dice: choose one weapon. You gain a d6 with this weapon. This die can be added as bonus to your attack or damage roll, or to execute one additional attack of opportunity. You can buy this benefit multiple times. If used on the damage, the d6s explode (i.e. are open-ended rolls).
  • Improve secondary attacks: a +1 bonus to all your secondary attacks. You can take this benefit multiple times, until your secondary attacks reach your fist attack bonus.
  • Rerolls: reroll one failed attack roll per combat. You can buy this benefit multiple times.
  • Critical : choose one; gain a free attack after confirming a critical hit with it. You can buy this benefit multiple times.
  • Combat Reaction: as an immediate action, add ½ your BAB to your AC vs one attack. Can be used once per round, after the enemy attack roll, but before the GM narrates the results.

Hit Points
This is the easiest part. I don’t want HPs skyrocketing, so all Hit Points gained after 10th level become Reserve Points. You still gain HD for the purpose of spells and effects (like the various power word spells).
I also recommend that you create some “Second Breath” mechanic. Something that allows a PC to use his Reserve Pool once per day, as a full-action.

Also easy “to fix”. At every odd level, choose a benefit from below.
  • Automatic success: you can a free success once per game session. This benefit can only be used with your ‘Good’ save progressions. You can buy this benefit multiple times (maximum 3).
  • Improve weak saves: add +1 to one of your ‘Weak’ save progressions. You can buy this benefit twice for each ‘Weak’ save throw.
  • Luck of Heroes: you gain a d4 bonus die to save throws. Once per day you can add this d4 to any save throw. You can buy this benefit multiples times. You must choose to use the bonus dice before rolling the save.

OK, this is the hardest bit and will require a lot of GM’s call to work. Let’s try. First rule: you can’t have more than 10 ranks in any skill. Second rule: after 10th level, rank costs are doubled (i.e. 1 rank costs 2 skill points). Instead of buying skill ranks, you can buy one of the benefits below. The first time you buy a specific benefit, it costs 1 skill point; the second time 3 points, then 5, 7 etc. Given these costs, you may desire to accumulate skill points, instead of spending them at each level.
  • Skill Specialization: choose one specific kind of task within a trained class skill (for example, ‘Dragons’ for Knowledge [Arcane] or ‘Darklands’ for Survival). You gain a d6 bonus die for this specialization. You can choose new specialization for the same skill or for others.
  • Reroll: reroll a failed skill check once per day. You can buy this benefit multiple times (maximum 5).
  • Critical Success: you gain a special benefit if you roll a natural ‘20’ with one specific trained class skill. This requires a good deal of GM ad hoc calls. For example, a Critical Climb check could remove all penalties for climbing. A Critical Diplomacy could turn the NPC into a follower etc.
  • Skill Trick: this was an idea from the Complete Scoundrel sourcebook (D&D 3.5). Basically, you gain a small mechanical benefit with a specific skill. Things like reduce time to use a skill (using Diplomacy as full-round action), correlated abilities (standing up as an immediate action for Acrobatics; or detect magic with Appraise). Check the original Skill Trick to better customize the benefit, remembering that tricks in general were considered “half-feats” in strength (very specific things, useful, but not powerful). They also were usable just once per encounter (or minute).

The normal spell progression is interrupted, and the spellcaster must choose one of the following benefits:
  • Recover Dweomer: if a spell cast by you is dispelled, negated by SR or completely negated by a successful save throw, you recover the dweomer. This benefit can’t bought 2 times in a row.
  • Metamagic Pool: you gain 1 metamagic pool point. You can use it to pay for the increased spell slot cost of using a metamagic feat. This benefit can’t bought 2 times in a row.
  • Master Slot: you gain a spell slot of any level, except your highest. The third time you buy this benefit, you can instead choose your highest spell level. The fifth time you can choose a spell level above your highest.

Class Features and other stuff
Finally, the normal class features. I wouldn’t stop their progression, although I do recommend that the GM check each case, as some class can either become too strong (or weak) with the rules above.
Actually, if this entire subsystem seems broke you can just use the E6 mini game or Tweets’ Epic system instead, as I mentioned at the beginning of the post. I hope that maybe some of the suggestions described here can be become, at least, new E6 feats or epic benefits. In fact, the entire idea of this post is just to toss out some of the craziest stuff that I’ve been thinking lately.


  1. It would be interesting to see how these rules function from a player's perspective in a playtest. Alas, I don't even have a gaming group I play with on a regular basis. It will be interesting to see how Paizo addresses high lvl. campaigns with their Myhtic Adventures sourcebook coming out at the end of the summer.

  2. I believe that Mythic Adventures is already a sign that Paizo won't do a Epic-level sourcebook (levels 20+). I really liked the approach of Mythic, though I wished it could work together with the Hero Points rules (using both, as of the first playtest, is a little redundant).

    My actual Pathfinder group is very recent, so I don't think they would want to playtest these rules anytime near, unfortunately.

  3. Reminds me a lot a french game system I use a lot (yeah, i'm french, you can start to throw rocks at me ;)), where the goal was to play big time heroes without them being stupidily powerful. I find these optionnal rules very smart, but i wonder if all groups will be able to get past the whole "not being stupidly powerful in a high level Pathfinder game" thing.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Rorix.

    Actually, I can say that most of my players prefer a more subtle approach to high levels. Few of them really played in a high level game; after a few sessions of Pathfinder RAW, many ask me to downplay the "super heroe" aspect of d20.

    Now I'm curious (and very interested): which French game system are you talking about?

  5. Well, this is kinda complicated for the system. For the basis I took "Dé Krâsse system 2" (or "DK² system"). The system was created by 3 french blokes who felt a bit like your pathfinder group : they loved D&D3.5, but found the system overpowering and restrictive (with the class system, even if pathfinder streamlined the skill system A LOT, that wasn't enough for them). So they made their thing, with the same "game feel" in mind (not too powerful heroes against monsters and evil wizards) : basically, everything is a feat, and the only thing you get by levelling is 4 new feats. Want 6+INT skill points? It's a feat. Want more HP? It's a feat. Want points to upgrade your saves? It's also a feat.

    They also overhauled the spell system to make the players create their spells according to a chart (the more powerful the spell, the more it will cost energy to cast. Now there's a mana bar in your D&D :p).

    Like d20 system, it was meant to be a generic system, useable with every setting with little rework, but like d20 system (in my opinion), it was in the medieval-fantasy-heroic type of settings where it shined the most. I used it to run "PlanesKape", which was basically my spin on the AD&D "Planescape" with DK² slapped on it. I ran something like 100 games with various players (over 50, i was in a big, big tabletop RPG club and i think almost everyone played it at least once :p). After a year or so, i stopped running PlanesKape to reflect on the system : over all those games, I had the time to see its flaws, what was overpowered and what was useless.

    I took several month to write my own version of it, rebalancing everything, adding options and the like. It so disfigured now that you can only spot the very basic concepts of DK² in what I like to call my "OK system" (I kept the "everything's a feat" thing and the spell system, expanding a lot upon both). It's been 2 year I've been using the new system to run a lot of "PlanesKape²", making tweaks along the way, and I think i've reached a point where the system is ideal to run a perpetual "6 to 10th level of Pathfinder" type of game in a medieval-fantasy setting (Planescape for that matter).

    I can talk about it for hours (since i created the thing) but it would be long and painful to read. Feel free to ask if you have any question, and forgive me for the mistake I may have made in my rambling : english is not my mothertongue.

    On another note, I'd be interested to discuss GMing tips/habits with a GM from overseas, since Americans (or Latin Americans for that matter) and Europeans (especially the French) have a VERY different vision of tabletop RPG and how it should be played. To put it metaphorically, there's as much as a difference between American and French GMing methods as there is a difference between French and American movies. which is saying a lot :).

  6. Hmmm... very interested. I did some Google-fu and found that this system was used for a Lanfeust RPG, nice! I'll check it out (my French is bit rusty bit I think I can manage it). Thanks for the info!

  7. Oh...I forgot. If you'd like to talk more about GM habits from different contries, please, send an email to me: tzimiscedracul - at - gmail - dot - com

  8. Will do, I have lots of question, expect a big fat mail in your inbox tomorrow :p